DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

David Brin's "off-axis" political suggestions

Suggestion Thirteen: Restore Independent Advisory Agencies

By David Brin, Ph.D.


[image from LAWS.com]

I'm proud to have lent some modest help to the ScienceDebate2008 effort, which got both the Barack Obama and John McCain campaigns to answer questions on science and technology policy. Before making my own science-related recommendations, let me clip a recent statement from the folks at Science Debate 2008:

We want to congratulate President-elect Obama on continuing to assemble an outstanding science team, starting with Nobel Laureate and experienced scientific administrator Steven Chu as Energy Secretary. Two more outstanding appointments are:

  1. John Holdren as President Obama's Science Advisor. John has an excellent knowledge of science policy, and a deep understanding of how the public needs the government to engage on science policy issues. He is a recent past president of the AAAS and an early and ardent Science Debate 2008 supporter.

  2. Jane Lubchenco, we're told, will head up President Obama's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admninistration (NOAA). She is an outstanding choice with a deep background in marine biology. Jane is also a past AAAS president, and also an early supporter of Science Debate 2008.

What other evidence is there, that we may have reversed directions away from the know-nothing cliff? During the recent election campaign, Barack Obama received endorsement from 61 of the country's Nobel laureates in physics, medicine and chemistry -- scientific heavyweights who used the occasion to both call for a scientific renewal in America and critique the state of American science at the end of the Bush era.

Now, let me go farther with some added proposals:

  1. Rebuild OTA and other science advisory agencies in Congress. Yes, we look back at Newt Gingrich as having been mild and reasonable -- ahem, well, relatively -- compared to the horrific troglodytes who followed. Still, among the truly loathsome crimes that occurred on his watch was the dismantling -- with malicious and absolutely open eyes toward the likely disastrous consequences -- of the in-house scientific and technical advisory apparatus that used to help senators and representatives base their deliberations on fact, rather that arm-waving dogma. But I must point out that one of the greatest disappointments of the 2006 Congress that elevated Nancy Pelosi as Speaker was its timidity about reversing this crime against the Republic.

    The idea of bringing back the Office of (Science and) Technology Assessment has never been dormant. In the 13 years since the OTA closed, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) have championed several attempts to reopen its doors. Other efforts are mounting. Yet, as noted science journalist Chris Mooney wrote in a Science Progress column earlier this year, "the quest to restore dedicated science advice for Congress through a reborn Office of Technology Assessment has proven more difficult than one might have supposed."

    This situation must be rectified, as soon as possible. Moreover, steps should be taken -- perhaps backed up by an Inspector General of the United States (see #7) -- to ensure that in future, technical reports may not be rewritten by politicians, changing their meaning at the last minute.

  2. Try to get more scientific-minded people into high office, especially Congress. Advisors are one thing. It will be quite another thing for some of the worst, troglodyte Congresscritters to know that several of their congressional peers sitting nearby know -- and can rise to point out -- how foolish they sound. In other words, why should there not be a few Congressfolk who actually know something about the world and how it works?

    Let's reduce this to fundamentals -- is there any inherent reason why our policy-making legislative and executive apparatus should be dominated almost entirely by lawyers? That is almost as unwise as it was to fill upper management in commerce and industry with solely MBA business majors, who never built a product or delivered a single palpable service.

    Specifically, the governors who are appointing replacements for Senators just resigned in order to enter the Obama Administration should be encouraged to go outside the political caste and go directly to the kinds of people who are so sorely lacking in Congress. Instead of scions of famous political dynasties, why not prove you really are "above politics" by appointing somebody prestigious and brilliant from a field the public actually respects? A couple of politically savvy scientist-senators might change the entire tenor of deliberation, on the floor of that august body. Well. Naive hope springs, eternal.

  3. Yes, re-emphasize science and technology education, the way we did after Sputnik. But go farther! Let's make this renewed emphasis sharp enough for even the obstinate to notice.

    Investment maven David A. Rosenberg recently commented:

    We have 1.2 million unemployed construction workers. We have 123,000 unemployed architects and engineers. We have 83,000 unemployed machinery workers. We have 145,000 unemployed transportation-related workers. So that brings us to barely more than 1.5 million of a labor pool the government can tap into for all the new building activity. But the bulk of the joblessness is in financials (up to half a million), retail/wholesale (1.2 million), leisure/hospitality (1.3 million) and health/education (1.2 million). And if investment bankers, shopkeepers, bell captains and medical chart technicians have anything in common it is that they don't have much experience in shovel-ready activities.

    To which I must reply -- so what? Barack Obama talks about how we must return to being a technologically adept and innovative society. But all the scholarships and propaganda in the world will not do as much to change minds about that as the sight of thousands of MBAs and business school graduates -- who drove our nation into the ground while preening and posing as geniuses and grabbing loot hand-over-fist -- frantically learning to do something that is actually useful, like making a product or delivering a service. Or else honorably driving bulldozers, developing suntans and new muscles, and helping to build infrastructure that will make America strong again.

    Watch. Just watch how quickly some of those "financial geniuses" discover the value of practical knowledge, or math, or facts, or any of the other things that boffins and wage slaves -- both the scientists and the practical workers -- knew all along: money serves us all best when it plays the role of helper and not tyrant.

  4. Get grassroots science advisory systems going in every community. Again, the theme of citizen-level resilience that I have raised elsewhere.

    There are so many ways to do this. For example, get inexpensive chemical sensors into public hands -- even into some cell phones -- and watch how quickly they pour data both into public agency databases and ad hoc citizen networks. Communities will be able to monitor their own waste streams, or zero in to help everyone spot and fix energy hemorrhages. There are a million other ideas, awaiting only the right environment of can-do encouragement.

    Yes, we need federal action. But I am sure President Obama will grasp what George Bush never could -- even though it is supposedly "conservative" wisdom -- that the best solutions are often local ones.

  5. Here's a "crackpot idea" or two... All right, this one really belongs in #19. But thematically it has a home here. I suggest the creation of a Shadow Congress that will be an outsider, advisory commission, consisting of one eminent scientist or other professional, appointed by each member of Congress. Ideally, these 535 luminaries (serving pro-bono) would be the "best" technically savvy person in each congress-person's district, who is also basically compatible with his or her viewpoint.

    Each delegate would receive all congressional technical reports and have the right to post, online, their own appraisals and discussions, with the aim of thrashing out matters of FACT... just as the Senators and representatives are charged with deliberating matters of POLICY. At minimum, the resulting online deliberations should be interesting and involve a higher level of scientific discourse than those in Congress itself. But advantages go further:

    1. This could staunch propaganda about the main Congressional advisory panels being biased, since the shadow commission would keep a wary eye.

    2. If this outer commission reaches consensus to accept (or revise) a particular proposal, then it would provide political cover for the Senator or Congressperson to do the same -- a valuable escape clause for any representative worried about offending the fanatics back home.

    3. And, yes, this body would bridge the world of science and politics, because many members would be appointed by representatives who have their own burning agendas.

    So? This commission will put the congressional fanatics into a terrible bind. If they choose somebody eminent, with genuine credentials and peer respect, they risk getting unwelcome news from their own appointee. If they pick a "scientist" of the flaky, fifth tier -- based on some dogma-driven agenda like climate change denial or creationism -- then the appointment will be open for glaring scrutiny... and politically-damaging hilarity.

    In what way would this not be a win-win for the pro-science and pro-future majority in the new Congress?

Above all, scientists should speak up often about the future... about how it will be different. It cannot help but be. But Americans have always done best when we dealt with change in a way that no other people did -- with a spirit of excitement and confidence and hope. After all, change is exactly what we asked for.


[image from Wikipedia]
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